My Latest Obsession: Obstacle Course Racing

It all started with a goal of getting into better shape that I set for myself around the holidays last year.  I wouldn’t say I was ever “out of shape”, but I did manage to pack on 15 or so extra pounds and haven’t challenged myself physically in a while.  2017 would become the year I stepped up my game and tried to get in the best shape of my life.  Interestingly, I have trouble casually participating in just about any hobby, so this pursuit of fitness quickly evolved from counting calories and running for a few miles each week into a full blown training plan and a schedule of 10+ events.  I’m addicted!

This is a bit of a departure from the standard fare of finance (although it has some impact), credit cards, and retirement accounts around here, but hopefully it’s entertaining enough that you’ll give me a pass.  I’ll break down my first obstacle course racing experience (hypothermia!), how much this new obsession is costing me (a lot!), and all of the events I’ve signed up for this year (plus that one I’m still on the fence about…).

My First Obstacle Course Race

Back around the time I started college (2009), obstacle course racing (or OCR) was barely even a thing.  There’s been a crazy guy over in the UK sending people through ice cold water up and around obstacles since 1987, but it didn’t really catch on until Warrior Dash and Tough Mudder showed up on the scene in 2009 and 2010.  Not long after that, several other businesses joined in on the fun and by 2015 there were more people participating in these OCR events than half marathons and marathons combined (~4.5 million)!

I first found out about OCR early on thanks to Facebook (apparently Tough Mudder was such a big success in the early days of Facebook ads, that there’s been a bunch of case studies on it), and it sounded awesome.  At the time, I wasn’t a big fan of running for the sake of running (this has changed recently), but loved climbing on and over stuff and I remember Ninja Warrior being one of my favorite shows at the time.

One of my dreams around that time was to make it onto the Ninja Warrior show and I even built my own Cliffhanger obstacle in my backyard!

Tough Mudder sounded like the perfect combination of challenging, fun, and scary obstacles, so I recruited my roommate at the time and my brother to run the event with me.  The event was only a short drive from our college campus, so the logistics were perfect for poor college students.  My brother also recruited a couple of his friends to join in the fun and we were all set up to run Tough Mudder Indiana 2011 as a team of 5.

Unfortunately, the event was in November… in Indiana… which meant it wasn’t exactly warm.  Thanks to the modern marvel of the internet, I can look up exactly what the weather was that day, instead of relying on my memory of the event (which keeps getting colder and windier!).  That fateful day was a chilly average of 37 degrees with gusts of wind reaching up to 21 mph while we spent 4+ hours soaking wet wandering through mud, hills, and obstacles.  Tons of people were quitting or being pulled off the course for injuries and hypothermia, but we persevered through the cold and pain.

That day consisted of 10+ miles of barbed wire crawls, too many water obstacles, submerging ourselves in ice water, electric shocks, some severe leg cramping, and a mild case of hypothermia, but I’ll be damned if crossing that finish line wasn’t one of the most exhilarating moments of my life.  It didn’t take long before I was signing up for the next one.

Before and after pics of that fateful day in November

An Occasional Hobby Into Whatever 2017 Counts As

Getting a few more people involved the next year for the Indiana 2012 event wasn’t a huge challenge as they had moved the event to June!  That event was a lot of fun and we kept the pattern going by also signing up for our third Tough Mudder in 2013.  Plus, I even convinced my girlfriend (now wife) to do it with us!

Life (graduating college and moving across the country) and a pretty bad experience with the electric shocks in that 2013 event (got hit with a few big ones on my way through EST) meant that I didn’t end up signing up for any OCR events that next year.  In 2015 I was itching to get back out there and we ended up meeting my brother down in Vegas to run the Tough Mudder there.  Unfortunately, I injured my back playing volleyball the week before and wasn’t even able to start the race with the rest of my team.  It was fun seeing the race from the other side, and I was able to spend the day catching up with my parents (who also flew down to spectate) as Becky, my brother, and his friend completed the event.

2016 was another OCR-less year (the wedding kept us busy), but when my wife and I decided to get in shape last November, it wasn’t long before I was looking at potential races to run in 2017.  It also wasn’t hard to convince my brother to meet up with us somewhere for another destination event.  We settled for the Spartan Race Super in Florida and started making plans for June.  They actually changed the event date not long after we booked our travel, but that’s a whole different story.

After that event was locked in, I settled into a good training plan and managed to get my weekly running mileage up to around 30 or so.  I was getting stronger and faster on a regular basis, my 5k personal best kept getting lower, my long runs kept getting longer, and my max number of pull ups slowly grew.  All of things culminated into illusions of grandeur and I wanted to dive further into training and really push myself to see if I could be competitive in the sport.

Now, I also consider myself pretty practical so I did a bit of research on what kind of times people were running these events in at the elite level and was quickly humbled.  Getting onto a podium at any OCR events this year would be a very, very long shot, but I did see the potential to get up near that level over the next few years if I really dedicated myself.

That’s when I decided to make this year the one where I try everything and see what format of race I like best.  OCR offers everything from short, sprint-able ~5k distance courses, longer half marathon+ obstacle filled courses, plenty in between, and all the way up to 24-hour nonstop looped races.  While I build up my fitness level and endurance over the coming year, I plan to give all of these races a shot and see what I end up liking the most (maybe nothing or maybe everything!).

And that’s how I went from a single event planned for the year up to 10+ already in the calendar.

My Current 2017 Event List

Obstacle Course Races

* I haven’t signed up for the two I marked with “*”, but it will probably happen.  The rest are already registered and good to go.

Other Races and Events

  • The Big Climb – race up 69 flights of stairs – March 26th (Complete!)
  • Local 5k Race – 5k – April 2nd (Complete!)
  • Carkeek Cottontail 6-hour – 1.9 mile loop with ~450 feet of elevation, ran for 6-hours straight – April 15th (1st place! 27.56 miles completed w/ over 6,000 feet of elevation gain)
  • Seattle Rock n Roll Half Marathon – 13.1 miles – June 18th

It all started with the Spartan Super that we’re meeting my brother down in Florida for, then Becky and I stumbled on a couple of local events that sounded fun: The Big Climb which is a race up the stairs of Seattle’s tallest building and the Rock n Roll half marathon that runs through the city.  After I caught the obstacle racing bug, it didn’t take long for me to add a 2nd day to the Florida race (Spartan Sprint) where I will try out the Competitive heat to see what percentile I fall in.

After that, I focused on what local races would be around Seattle because that makes the travel and work arrangements much simpler.  That led us to the Rugged Maniac which we’ll be running together with friends, the Tougher Mudder (the first wave of a regular Tough Mudder which is timed and has strict obstacle completion rules), and the Warrior Dash.

I also wanted to give Tough Mudder’s new 8-hour endurance event a shot and the one located in the Midwest worked best with our schedule.  The people who compete in the full 24-hour World’s Toughest Mudder event have always amazed me, but that kind of distance and time are really intimidating!  For that reason, I decided I would try out the 8-hour event first and assuming that goes fairly well (I survive), there’s a good chance you’ll see me at the full 24-hour one at the end of the year.

Chasing The Various OCR “Achievements”

Once those were locked in, I still felt the schedule was a little light AND these obstacle course racing businesses have some clever marketing techniques that make running several events in the same year seem pretty attractive.

First is the “Spartan Trifecta” which is achieved by running each of Spartan Race’s 3 primary distances (Sprint, Super, and Beast) all in one calendar year.  I already had the first two on the books, so I started looking and the event schedule for the Beast to see if I could fit one in.  Completely by chance, they happen to be running one in Dallas the same weekend we’ll be down there for FinCon 2017!  I’ll miss out on the Saturday morning presentations (but can always watch them later online), but this worked out to be a great way to squeeze a little more out of a trip that we already had the flights and hotels booked for.

Tough Mudder also came out with a new “Holy Grail” achievement this year for completing all 3 of their competitive events: Tougher Mudder, Toughest Mudder, and World’s Toughest Mudder in the same year.  Once again, I already have the first two scheduled but plan to wait on signing up for the third.  We’ll see how my body handles 8-hours of overnight abuse before I jump into the full 24-hour craziness that is WTM.  Come the end of August, after I finish my attempt Toughest Mudder, I’ll make the call on whether or not to book World’s for later this year.

How Much Is All of This Costing?

One thing that this new hobby is not: Cheap.  Even just getting into running on a consistent, serious basis has led to the purchase of several new items and pieces of clothing, but include the obstacle course racing gear and event fees and it really starts to add up!  If we didn’t have access to extremely cheap flights and hotels (thanks to big credit card bonuses), I highly doubt we’d have the same event schedule this year.  I often hear Golf used as an example of an expensive hobby, but I think obstacle course racing could give it a run for it’s money depending on how deep down the rabbit hole you go.

Much like anything else in life, there are a ton of different levels to how much you can spend participating.  If you stick to local events, book early, and simply wear old clothes and shoes you have lying around the house, then participating in a race or two will cost you hardly anything at all.  On the other hand, if you’re frequently traveling to events and buying top end gear such as shoes, gps watches, and OCR specific compression gear from head to toe, then the cost of your new hobby will add up extremely fast!

We fall somewhere in the middle and I’ve tried to remain conscious as I upgrade gear and book races.  For gear, I’ve tried to stick with my usual plan of buying the cheap option and then upgrading later if the cheap option can’t hold up or breaks easily.  For example, I started out simply running in my regular everyday shoes with regular cotton clothes from head to toe.  This worked fine for a short while, but once I started working my way up to 5+ mile runs it was obvious that this method wouldn’t work.  Foot pain, blisters, and chaffing of various body parts led to buying a pair of cheap running shoes, some running socks, compression shorts, and a couple shirts meant to be sweat in.  Another example was that I started out running by simply carrying my phone in my hand and listening to music through wired headphones.  This worked alright for a while, but I eventually bought an armband to hold my phone and a little while later upgraded to a nice pair of wireless headphones that are meant for running (it’s hard to find wireless headphones with no noise cancellation!).  I could go on, but I think you get the point.

I also made sure to use a coupon code when signing up for the various events if applicable (most have 20-40% off at any given time), but unfortunately these promo codes don’t work on the competitive heats for most events.  If you’re thinking about participating in a local event, be sure to check out Groupon for cheap tickets.  Most events make there way onto Groupon a month or two out at about half of the regular cost, but you will have to accept the less than ideal start times (usually afternoon).  This is a great way to try one out for the first time.

Now for the stats, so far this year we’ve spent ~$2,500 related to this new hobby of running and obstacle course races (between the two of us):

  • Running and OCR specific clothes and shoes: $652
    • Shoes, compression shorts, compression socks, running socks, headband, running belts, wetsuit + accessories, dry-fit shirts, etc.
  • Event entry fees: $1,261
    • See Event List above
  • Various Training: $297
    • Local obstacle course training days plus visits to the local bouldering gym (at least running is free!)
  • Various related equipment: $179
    • Pull-up bar, running headphones, running book, headlamp, strobes, etc.
  • Travel to Events: $45

Let’s See What Happens

This will be an interesting year as I dive head first into the hobby of obstacle course racing.  I enjoyed the few events I’ve done in the past, but this year will blow that experience out of the water in several ways.  I’ll be participating in everything from a local 5k to an 8-hour, overnight, obstacle filled event and everything in between.  Some will be competitive races while others will be a fun-paced obstacle adventures with friends and family.  This year I’ll try a little of everything and see where the chips fall.  If I love it? Awesome!  If I’m sick of it by the end of year? Oh well, hopefully I had some fun along the way.

The overall costs look a little crazy up front, but they are offset pretty heavily by the fact that our non-OCR related travel will be reduced this year, our new fitness habit has led to spending less on other forms of entertainment to occupy our time, and I actually stopped drinking alcohol a month or so ago in the name of focused training.  We’ll see how long that last part holds up though…

Overall, I super excited about the new hobby and all of the events we have lined up this year!

Have any of your run an obstacle course race in the past or plan to in the future?  I’d love to hear your take on this latest sports craze in the comments below.

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